It sounds like something out of science fiction – being able to grow new body parts to replace one which has failed or been damaged in an accident. Medical Science has taken enormous steps since the first organ transplant took place in 1954, and now the main advances in medicine appear to be connected to stem cells and regenerative medicine.
Other animals, such as the Starfish, can re-grow a missing limb; so could this ability potentially be transferred to humans? How far have we come on our regenerative medicine journey, what developments are we likely to see in the next few years, and what remains the stuff of fiction?
What We Can Grow In the Lab
There’s a long way to go before we can grow a new limb or large internal organ in the lab, ready to be transplanted into a living patient when it's ready. There is, however, research making great progress into smaller body parts being grown in test tubes or in petri dishes.
German scientists working at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin have successfully grown fallopian tubes in the laboratory, with the aim of studying causes of ovarian cancer. The German team has managed to keep the fallopian tube tissue alive for a year, prompting hopes that fallopian tube transplants could well be possible for infertile women in the future.
In a case which hit the headlines recently, an Australian woman who had had lost an ear in a car crash received a 3D printed ear, made from special materials which closely replicate both the texture and appearance of human tissue. Once transplanted into a living patient, blood vessels form in the tissue, and cartilage begins to form. This technology has huge applications for facial reconstruction and plastic surgery, and although there is still a long way to go with testing and human trials, it won’t be too long before this sort of transplant becomes routine.
We’ve all heard of stem cells – those clever little cells with the ability to transform themselves into any other type of cell in the human body. Research using stem cells is nothing new and the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh is looking into how stem cells could be used to treat serious diseases such as Brain Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. The aim of the research is to eventually develop treatments which are personalised to the individual patient and which can use the stem cells to eradicate the cells which have mutated to cause the disease. At present, the only type of disease being treated by stem cells in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, are blood disorders and immune system problems, treated by a bone marrow transplant. Research into using stem cells for skin grafts and to repair the cornea is also underway, but there is a lot of testing to be done before the treatment becomes available.
One area where regenerative medicine is making a real difference to patients across the world is in tissue engineering. The premise is fairly simple; grow new tissue, cells or organs on a scaffold or framework, and then transplant the organ into the patient. Over time, the scaffold dissolves in the body, leaving the engineered tissue to heal the wound or injury.
Dr Stephen Badylak at the University of Pittsburgh is one of the world’s leading experts in this field and has successfully used tissue engineering techniques to treat bone injuries, inflammatory bowel conditions, and bad skin wounds. Skin wounds have perhaps been the most successful example of tissue engineering. Traditional techniques using skin grafts or even donated skin were effective, but healing times were lengthy and the procedures were painful.
The new technique involves taking skin stem cells from a tiny area on the patient’s body, and then processing it into a suspension which is sprayed onto the wound. Recovery time is far shorter and, as the patient’s own skin cells are being used in the treatment, there is no rejection and the treated area looks much more natural once healed.
The Future of Regenerative Medicine
Is it really possible that in the future we’ll have our diseases and conditions caused by ageing treated by regenerative medicine? It certainly seems that science is heading in that direction. Growing small quantities of tissue in the lab for transplant into humans is already happening. Advances are being made in stem cell technology every day. Scientists appear to be confident that in the future they will be able to use the patient’s own stem cells to “reboot” the body and deal with many of the most serious diseases.
One word of caution though – it generally takes between 15 and 20 years for a new scientific discovery to make it from the lab through all of the clinical testing to approval and use in the hospital ward, so we still have a while to wait.